Monthly Archives: February 2017

Doing the Math

Erich Fromm once defined evil as “attraction to what is dead, decaying, lifeless, and purely mechanical.” Certainly Fromm doesn’t hold the cachet he once did, but this way of thinking about evil has stuck with me. It’s not so much the dead, decaying, or lifeless part—that’s part of nature—but the purely mechanical. I don’t disparage the many machines we have that make life easier, and modern life possible—can you imagine your job without computers? The problem in my mind, as Fromm defines it, lies in the word “purely.” Purely mechanical. By the numbers. You see, we often forget that being human, and thought itself, isn’t about pure logic. Our brains evolved to be half emotive and have rational. Our feelings can be smart. When we reduce all of life to numbers, according to Fromm’s definition, we’ve entered the realm of evil.

Some, in the past as well as present, have posited numbers as the only real truth. No matter where you are in the universe 2 + 2 = 4. It’s about the only certainty we have. I think what Fromm was concerned about was not this kind of certainty, but rather that which sees only numbers as being important. Think of the multibillionaire who’s lost sight of the human misery he (and it’s generally a he) has caused to become so wealthy. It’s not something towards which an enlightened individual would aspire. Purely mechanical it is, by definition, evil. We’ve all known people like that—those who just can’t get beyond the numbers whether they be the bottom line or the instructions for the doomsday device. The human element is missing. Are we truly beyond good and evil?

Does it add up?  Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Does it add up? Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Governments, once upon a time, were put in place in democracies to protect the interests of the people. When people are mere marks—numbers at an inauguration or cheated at the polls—we’ve entered the realm of purely mechanical. Of course, intellectuals are out of favor now. Why be troubled with the news when you can make up your own? 2 + 2 need not equal 4 if you say it loud enough. Behind stage, however, you’ll make sure your accountants know the score. Those who wish to start a New World Order must insist that the classics are outdated. While we’re counting out the days in our prison cell it might be a good opportunity to read. I plan to have Erich Fromm on my list. I’m only human after all.

Signs and Portents

Horror movies are, of course, more than escapism. Although it’s taken many years academics are starting to pay some attention to them. Because of a conversation with a colleague this past week I felt compelled to watch The Omen again. The current political situation merits such viewing, in any case. Interestingly, the first time I saw The Omen—which was during a spate of unemployment—it didn’t scare me much. Like most classic horror, the scenes that had everybody talking in the mid-‘70s had been described so often that they failed to shock. All that was left was a dispensationalist tale of the end of the world—non-biblical, and the fright only came from belief. This time, however, I could see it as nothing but a film about a political takeover.

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With the open admission on the part of Steve Bannon that his administration—let’s not kid ourselves here—intends to dismantle the government we’ve had in this country since around 1776, we can see that this election was only an excuse. Knowing that this dark side of human nature (some call it the Devil) won’t be given a chance again—they didn’t win the popular vote this time around and unless they silence the media they won’t win the next one—Bannon’s crew, like Damien, has to deconstruct quickly. The Republican establishment, unless it opens its eyes soon, will find itself locked outside as well. Ironically, it’s the public that can see this, not the elites. It’s as if George III were back from the grave. Power, as The Omen intimates, is incredibly seductive. The GOP, wrongly supposing it will share it, goes along with nominations that have now been openly declared agents of destruction. Where is Revelation when you need it?

The Omen is all about Satan getting a back-door entry to the White House. The politicians are all easily duped. Evangelical Christians have been brainwashed into thinking that only by voting Republican can they prevent abortion and gay marriage—two decidedly non-biblical issues. You see, the Devil works that way. Scripture says he can disguise himself as an angel of light. People who don’t educate themselves are very easily fooled. We’ve followed the script rather precisely. Satan’s greatest tool, it’s said, is that people don’t believe in him. So after you finish reading 1984—which we all should—watch The Omen. Ponder what inviting evil to take over the one remaining superpower might really mean.

Seeing Thinks

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a dude! What what is it? It’s actually a cloud. I enjoy the entries on Mysterious Universe, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It seems like decades since I laid down on the ground and looked at the clouds, seeking shapes. The sky is nature’s cerulean canvas and although they’re just water vapor, clouds take on endlessly fascinating shapes. Since religion has historically been projected onto the sky, many people take signs in the sky as somehow divine. The photo on Mysterious Universe is of a cloud that some thought was Jesus and others thought was Mary. Herein lies the rub of pareidolia. You see what you want to see.

There is, in traditional Christian thought, a world of difference between Jesus and Mary. You really don’t want to mix the two up. I mean one is divine and the other is only venerated. Don’t want to cross that line into worship because idolatry leads to all kinds of trouble. So who’s in the sky? Someone that we should perhaps think sacred: water. In a world quickly running out of fresh water (of course since now, officially, there is no global warming we’ll have to find another way of explaining our disappearing ice caps) we should all perhaps worship our clouds. The harbingers of fresh water. It won’t last forever.

I, for one, complain when it rains too much. I suppose that’s because I’ve lived most of my life in the rainy climates of the eastern United States and Scotland. Days can pass without a glimmer of sunshine. I get depressed and truculent. Yet the freshwater falls. Water tables are replenished. In much of the world—indeed, in much of the United States—it is not so. Water shortages are bad and are growing worse. We use far too much and when the ice caps are gone, the largest reserves of freshwater on the planet will be empty. Then again, capitalists have never been too keen on saving up for the future. Most of us alive today, at least in the rainy climes, will have our lifetime supply. The future, however, looks pretty hot and thirsty. So who is it in the sky? Could be either gender—wearing robes makes it hard to tell at this level of detail—but whoever it is, let’s hope they’ve brought plenty of friends with them.

Look like anybody you know?

Look like anybody you know?

The New Neighbors

Apartment dwellers often ponder new neighbors. If anything gives the lie to being in control of your own destiny, renting your domicile does. Still using the old, aristocratic terms landlord or landlady, we know that we are under someone else’s authority. “As long as you’re under my roof,” my bully of a step-father liked to huff, “you’ll obey my rules.” When you rent, you can’t choose your neighbors. Those who own the property have final say. If they play the stereo too loud (“game” is probably the modern equivalent, but I was born before Pong even came alone) and won’t listen to your plea for a more monastic setting, you throw yourself on the mercy of your lord or lady. We got new neighbors this week. Not just us, but the whole galaxy. Seven new earth-like planets—surely ruled by Trump-like dictators—have been discovered. Let’s hope they’re early to bed, early to rise types.

During the Bush administration I often fantasized about the aliens landing on the White House lawn. I thought, with a president so obviously lacking intelligence, what would our new neighbors think of us? Would they complain to the landlord? You’d think that after that long trip across cold, vast interstellar space they’d maybe have the right to expect to find the brightest and the best in charge, right? Mission accomplished. The sign says so right there. Or to put it in a modern key, “Earth first, Earth first.” If they’ve got their intergalactic television on, I hope it’s switched to a different channel.

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Contact, the novel by Carl Sagan, suggested the first contact from the aliens would be of Adolf Hitler. Among the first poisoned radiation this planet flung off into space was the fascist propaganda of 1930s Germany. Earthlings, not yet tempered by the Trump brand, were shocked. Surely this is a sign of hostility! Unless, of course, you control both the legislative and executive branches. Then you can just decide not to show up at the town hall and tell everyone you’ve got more important things to do. So, what will our new neighbors think? Do they just want the bodies of their compatriots from Roswell back, or is it a more serious discussion to be held behind closed doors? After all, African slaves were merely chattels in a negotiation between a more powerful culture and unhuman indigenous dullards with nothing better to do. On the spaceship back to their extraterrestrial slave mines, I do hope they have the common decency to keep the music down to a reasonable level.

Dreaming Reality

The problem with monsters is that they’re not easily reduced to a lowest common denominator. This becomes clear in an article about the under explored (from a western perspective) monsters of Australia. Christine Judith Nicholls, in “‘Dreamings’ and place – Aboriginal monsters and their meanings” (sent by a friend), describes many of the scary creatures of the outback. The article title references Dreamtime, a kind of aboriginal journey that ties into indigenous Australian religion. The division between imagination and reality isn’t as wide as we’re sometimes taught. (More on this is a moment.) Nicholls’ article demonstrates that many of these monsters impress on children the dangers of wandering away from parents. Indeed, that is clearly part of the socializing function of monsters. The question, however, is whether that’s all there is to monsters or not. (Nicholls doesn’t use reductionistic language—she does note this is a psychological explanation.)

In an unrelated article in The Guardian, by Richard Lea—“Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds”—researchers suggest that fictional characters seem to appear in “real life” from time to time. All those who read fiction know this phenomenon to a degree. Just because someone is completely made up doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t exist. Since our minds are the ultimate arbiters of reality, fictional characters and monsters may indeed be “real.” This isn’t to suggest that physical, flesh-and-blood imaginary beasts lurk in the dark, but it isn’t to suggest that they don’t either. Reality is something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The more we think about it, the more it appears that both hemispheres of our brains contribute to it.

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When the morning newspaper raises alarm after alarm about the frightening tactics of the Trump administration the temptation is to give up to despair. That’s not necessary, actually. Reality requires our consent. Imagination can be a powerful antidote to the poison spewed by politicians. What fictional character—or monster—might step into a situation such as this to make it right? If the power of millions of smart minds were concentrated on such a being, would it not become real? Friends have suggested over the past four months that the arts—creativity—are going to be especially important in the coming years. If we are to survive evil we’ll have to use our imaginations. That’s something that the aboriginal peoples can teach us, if only we’re willing to believe.

Devil of a Time

thedevilOne might be excused for thinking so much about the Devil these days. Displays of lies and evil intentions are on pretty obvious display at the highest levels. Indeed, the current political situation has me reassessing my skepticism about the Antichrist. One of the truly well thought out books on the subject is Jeffrey Burton Russell’s classic, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. The first in a series of books Russell wrote on the topic, The Devil opens with evil. Noting that the Devil defies easy definition, Russell begins rather disturbingly with literary descriptions of acts that can only be described as evil. This allows him to point out that real life events often surpass those that authors can get us to read, intimating that something is seriously wrong with the world.

Having noted that, the emergence of the Devil is not an easy one to trace. Evil has been recognized in many cultures and it has been explained in many ways. Some have personified it, but even that took a long and circuitous route to the dark lord we know today. Bits of Greek philosophy and Zoroastrian cosmology combine with an emerging monotheism among the Israelites and their kin until eventually we have an embodiment of evil appearing. Even so, the Bible has no clear image of who “the Devil” is. This took further developments beyond the New Testament and the image that eventually won out, so to speak, borrowed heavily from classical mythology. Eventually Old Scratch emerges in a recognizable form.

Belief in the Devil still runs high in American culture. I suspect it will run even more so in months to come. At the end of Russell’s well researched study, the Devil comes down to the blatant disregard for the suffering of others. One might think of the mocking of the disabled or the favoring of the wealthy over the poor. Evil may be known by many names but it is easily recognized by those not caught up in its worship. This became clear in the biblical quotations sprinkled throughout the book. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” for example. Or “when an ungodly man curses Satan, he curses his own soul.” Mirrors may serve multiple purposes. The vain look into them and see only beauty. Those who believe in the Devil can’t help but know who it is that stares back.

Bigger Bibles

The Book of Jubilees. 1 Enoch. It’s been years since I’ve read these “apocryphal” books. I’m thinking about them today because of the concept of canon. If you’re like me—and I sincerely hope you’re not—you never heard the word “canon” until you reached college. If I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that I thought the professor was saying “cannon.” A single-n canon is a “rule,” or in this case a collection of texts. There were lots of texts in antiquity. Not many people could read, but that didn’t mean that those who could stopped writing (those who have ears to hear, pay heed). The image of the Bible with which I was raised—and mine said “Holy Bible” right on the front, so I knew it had to be right—was a collection of 66 books; 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. Before I reached college I heard that Catholics had some extra books in their Bible. (Surely they must be about image worship and praying to Mary!) Then I discovered “the Apocrypha.”

The number of apocryphal books is not fixed. When I became an Episcopalian I learned to call them Deutero-canonical books instead of Apocrypha. I still couldn’t figure out the number because two of them (Daniel and Esther) are already in Protestant Bibles, but are expanded somewhat in Catholic Bibles. Do they count or not? Then there were others like Judith, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Interesting books, but it was hard to see what they added to the already pretty long Scripture I grew up with. I became accustomed to considering these “extra” books part of the canon. The Bible was bigger than I thought. Then I heard someone say that Jubilees was in the Ethiopic Orthodox canon. Indeed, eastern Orthodox Church canons differ from Roman Catholic Bibles. The Ethiopic Church (called Tewahedo by the locals) has millions of members. It is an ancient faith. It has a really, really big canon. You can’t learn much about it, however, at least not easily.

Because it is almost completely confined to Ethiopia, not much western scholarly attention has been lavished on Tewahedo. Sure, you can pay university press prices for a monograph or two to find technical reports, but few have bothered to ponder what all this means for the Bible. That’s why I’m thinking about Jubilees and 1 Enoch. These books are part of a Christian Bible but not the Christian Bible. There are many sacred texts in the world. Those of Hinduism and Buddhism put our somewhat tiny Judeo-Christian Bible in a different light as a small contender in a huge arena. There are scriptures from all over the world. And the response in our “globalized” university system is to cut religion departments. There’s still a lot to learn. I taught Bible classes for nearly twenty years and fell behind a bit in the larger world. It’s been far too long since I’ve read Jubilees and 1 Enoch.

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